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Wisdom ... Indian to Indian



My recent fall eco-escape was to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the land of the Cherokee Indians, this past weekend.  It was a last-moment trip without any planning.

Threw my tent, hiking boots and some food in the trunk and drove north to escape 12+ hours of work each day, non-stop chores and managing the schedule of my "busier-than-the-president" teenager.

The Smokemont Campground, surrounded by lush autumn foliage and alongside a beautiful stream, was lavishly unoccupied;  it didn't take me long to figure out why. The temperature in the night dropped below zero and I had to wake up to put on a third layer of insulation, gloves and hat, before I cozied up in my subzero sleeping bag, surrounded by the ripple of the flowing water.                 

I could pack in a beautiful mountain hike, a horse ride, visit a farmstead built by the first settlers and catch the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen from the prettiest spot on earth.

But the next day was reserved for the Cherokees.

I have been always fascinated by our Native tribes; their stories of persecution and triumph remind me of what our people have gone through various times.

One more parallel that is so sharp between our respective cultures is how we both have kept our heroic traditions alive through storytelling.

In the Cherokee tradition, the chief would tell stories around the evening campfire and the village would gather around him, marvelling and reflecting on the traditions, beauty and wisdom shared by him.  

So did we when we lived in the jungles, virtually on horseback, escaping persecution by the Moghuls. When we found refuge in secluded spots and fires were lit to cook the langar, the heroic ballads were sung, keeping our history and spirits alive.

Another similarity is that of the names. The Native Americans have meaningful real-life action-oriented names. Like "Soaring Eagle,"  "Laughing Maiden," etc.

It was hiking on the mountain trail in this sacred land of the natives a few years ago that I got insight into my purpose, from my name.  I realized my name had an action association too and the Gurbani spoke of it.

Har ki katha kahania gurmeet sunaiyaa...

Gurmeet, the beloved of the Guru - tells the stories of the Lord ...  it made perfect sense to me.  We have got stories to tell - and I would make sure I serve my name-action from now on.

What wisdom was I to derive during this trip?

After soaking in the town of Cherokee and some native handicraft shops, I  visited the museum of the Cherokee Indians. The entrance had captured my attention already. The statue of the smokey bear and of Sequoia (the Cherokee genius who invented their syllabary in 1821) were both adorned with a turban. I had seen feathery headwear but never a turban on the natives.

It was a good sign. I would soon find a special message for me, a Sikh.

The museum tells you the history of European injustices upon the Cherokee tribe; the initial befriending and trading, then the annihilation, assimilation and continuous humiliation throughout each phase. 

One of the displays showed some of the quotes of the Europeans juxtaposed with those from the Cherokees, side by side, to show the different perspectives of each. This one really struck me hard.

Once, after days of deliberation on the Bible by the mission priests in an attempt to "civilize" and "bring to God" the "savage" natives, the Cherokee Chief Yonaguska spoke: 

Upon reading chapters of Matthew, he commented, "Well, it seems to be a good book - strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long."

Why did it strike me? Perhaps -  because I find ourselves guilty of adhering to the same predicament that the Europeans were being accused of - our scriptures are overflowing with truth and nobility; therefore surely, we must be a superior people! 

I can't imagine the reaction of the Christian priest who was trying to demean and convert the Cherokees, upon hearing what Chief Yonaguska had to say, but I know one thing for sure. If the Chief found the Bible to be a good book - he would certainly find Guru Granth Sahib outstanding; he would then find it even stranger that the Sikhs, too, fall short of the Sikhi ideals today, despite having had this treasure for hundreds of years.

We need to stop hiding behind the greatness of our Guru, our Scripture, and the sacrifices by our great men and women of the past. It is one thing to derive strength from their greatness, but it is cheating to not embody the greatness in our own lives.

We need to be the living and walking embodiment of the lessons taught to us by our Guru.  Until we consciously walk the path, talk is useless ... as the Chief would inevitably point out.

Before we say something about our Guru's greatness to an outsider, the latter should have found out about it through our demeanor, our actions, our service, our ethics, our ways.

This is the wisdom I tasted from the mountains this trip. This is the message of the Cherokee Nation to ours.  


December 7, 2008

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Bangalore, India), December 08, 2008, 5:22 AM.

Simply beautiful musings.

2: Mary Jane Nations (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), December 08, 2008, 4:06 PM.

I have Cherokee roots; I have also coverted to Sikhism in my spiritual path. This article is so powerful, speaking of the wisdom of two cultures that have much to say to everyone today.

3: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), December 08, 2008, 4:58 PM.

I feel, in essence, the wisdom derived by Gurmeet Kaur ji is that our real value lies in our actions, behaviour, ethics and dealings when interacting with others. The Guru asks us to be truthful/sachiaara in our day to day living.

4: Angel Wynn (Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S.A.), December 09, 2008, 9:20 AM.

Beautiful story that takes me back to my own journey to the Cherokee Nation snuggled within the Smoky Mountain Range. It is quite beautiful and the Cherokee have a sensational history. You can check out more images from this awesome tribe by going to and click on the Cherokee tab under tribes or do a search using the word Cherokee. Good luck and many more incredible soul searching journeys in Indian Country.

5: Preetinder Singh (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), December 09, 2008, 9:54 AM.

Great article. We need to get these wakeup calls and reality checks off and on. Thanks for sharing.

6: Hardeep Singh (Alpharetta, U.S.A.), December 09, 2008, 11:50 AM.

Great effort. All of us, being created by the perfect Creator, make every effort to reflect His image and perfection we carry in ourselves (Man Tu Jot Swarup Hain, Apna Mool Pehchaan), thus displaying the Chardi Kalaa spirit in us. Grace and greatness of the Guru's wisdom has inspired individuals from time to time, from place to place, from generation to generation, to realize and reflect the essence of the Creator we carry in ourselves. Prof Puran Singh has very beautifully presented his perspective about the relationship of a Sikh with his Faith: "Our [Sikh] history is of the soul; all its events are of the soul. All truth for us is personal. We have not to prove it, we have to stand witness to it in our soul! Rise and fill yourselves with this Glory. It makes you noble, bold and free, self-drunk, self-less, flower-like, sun-like. It sweetens you and your sweetness sweetens all life around. At your sight, the lamb and the tiger must drink at the same pool. Perpetual spring must roll in you. You shall be the moral influence radiating peace, goodwill, friendship, fellowship, life, vigor, vitality, in short, spirituality."

7: Claudia Gaspar (Sao Paulo, Brazil), December 11, 2008, 1:26 PM.

Gurmeet Kaur presented us with a new and thoughtful article. She who created the blog 'Transformation in Small Steps' - is the modern face of Sikh panth. Both the Cherokee leader and Gurmeeet Kaur touched a nevralgic point: our inability to be coherent with our traditions and values. Long life to her!

8: Ishver (Ipoh, Malaysia), December 16, 2008, 8:46 AM.

The Cherokees (and the Natives in general) would be close to extinct if not for their sense of righteousness and spirituality. Do you see similarity in the concept of the "White Man's Burden" with the concept of "Haumai" and "Maya"? (: enjoyed reading this.

9: Kulbir Singh (Sydney, Australia), December 16, 2008, 6:04 PM.

Simply beautiful. Well said: "We need to stop hiding behind the greatness of our Guru, our Scripture, and the sacrifices by our great men and women of the past." And you don't need to explain the meaning of 'Gurmeet' in Punjabi. Gurmeet is one who meets the Guru every day, every hour, every moment (that is, remains in touch with the Guru all the time). You should be a poet. You have written poetry in the form of this article. May Waheguru bless you.

10: Sapan Shah (Indore, India), December 23, 2008, 12:09 PM.

An amazingly beutiful article which connects nature, history, human values and faith and God's message to us! It really makes you sit up and think: hey, she is so right in her thoughts about the Guru's teachings and walking the talk. My salute to the author!

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